While Jets rookies have already reported to training camp, the full team does not have to come in until Thursday, July 26. With the team trying to get back to their winning ways in 2012, here are the five biggest questions they will try to answer as they go into training camp.
1. Can Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow co-exist?
While the team has emphasized that Tim Tebow will be the second-string quarterback and that Sanchez will be taking the majority of the snaps, using one of the most popular players in the NFL as a back-up may make for a difficult situation for Jets management.
Sanchez had a difficult 2011 season, but he has more experience than Tebow and is considered the better passer. Initial plans call for Tebow to be used in a “Wildcat” role, the same way former Jets wide receiver Brad Smith was used in 2009 and 2010. This role would only call for Tebow to be used for a few plays a game, but Tebow’s big play ability could provide a spark for the Jets offense that the team has been missing under Sanchez. There is a definite need for the Jets to get better production from the quarterback position than they did in 2011, and finding a happy medium between Sanchez and Tebow will be a key for that improvement.
2. Which safety will step up?
One of the biggest weaknesses for the Jets defense in 2011 was the safety position. The team used a three-man rotation for the majority of the season between Jim Leonhard, Brodney Pool, and Eric Smith, before Leonhard suffered a season-ending injury in the team’s thirteenth game of the year.
Pool left for the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, and it appears that the Jets are not interested in bringing back Leonhard after injuries have ended his season early in each of the past two years. Instead, the Jets chose to sign veterans LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell, while drafting defensive backs Antonio Allen and Josh Bush in April. Landry and Bell will likely be put in rotation with Smith as the starters, while Allen and Bush will pick up occasional playing time. However, the Jets need one of these players to step up as the play-maker at safety that the team has been missing since they traded Kerry Rhodes before the 2010 season. While cornerback Darrelle Revis is a force, he can’t cover the whole defensive backfield by himself, and if one of these safeties could step it up, the defense would be formidable against tough passing teams like the division-rival New England Patriots.
3. Who can play right tackle?
Along with Mark Sanchez and Eric Smith, right tackle Wayne Hunter was one of the most criticized returning players on the Jets this season. Hunter allowed 8.5 sacks last season, his first as a full-time starter with the team. The drop-off from former Pro Bowler Damian Woody to Hunter was a big one. Still, the Jets have yet to bring in any accomplished lineman to compete with Hunter, instead choosing to see how the players they have can adjust to new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano’s blocking scheme.
It looks like 2010 second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse will be given an opportunity to compete with Hunter for the starting right tackle spot, but he has been a major disappointment so far in his career. The right tackle spot was the focus for many of the Jets’ offensive struggles in 2011, and if the team does not find an effective solution this season, they could be in for another frustrating year on offense.
4. Where will the pass rush come from?
Aaron Maybin was the team’s leader in sacks in 2011 with only 6, and considering the sophisticated blitz packages that are a feature of Rex Ryan defense, this is a fairly disappointing figure. The good news is that Maybin got to that number after only signing with the team in October, so he could potentially have a much bigger impact this season.
Still, the Jets need to generate more quarterback pressure. Whether it comes from Maybin, or their recent first-round defensive linemen (Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples), or their veteran outside linebackers (Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas), the unit needs to improve in 2012. While the Jets have one of the best starting duos at cornerback with Revis and Antonio Cromartie, without a consistent pass rush receivers will find a way to get open against the Jets defense.
5. Who can replace LaDainian Tomlinson?
While Tomlinson’s role may have been diminished in 2011, he was a valuable change of pace back, giving Sanchez a solid target out of the backfield. In his absence, and with the team returning to a “Ground n’ Pound” approach in 2011, the team will be looking towards one of their young running backs to fill Tomlinson’s role as a third-down back next season.
An intriguing answer to this question could be a newly acquired talent: Tim Tebow. While much of the focus around Tebow’s arrival has been how he will impact the quarterback situation, the Jets have already given him reps with the punt return unit, showing the team’s willingness to use Tebow in a few unique roles. Last season when the Broncos were in the red zone or in short yardage situations, Tebow always seemed to be able to get the team past the first down marker. The Jets know that better than anyone, after Tebow led the Broncos on a 95 yard fourth-quarter drive to beat the Jets last season. If the Jets were to utilize Tebow as a hybrid back, while keeping Sanchez under center, the result could give the team some unpredictability on offense that has been missing in recent years.
By Eric Gustafsson